May 11

Journey to Becoming a Dog Trainer

Journey to Becoming a Professional Dog Trainer

For me, the journey began with a German Shepherd mix named Princess, back when I was in the sixth grade. I did not come a great dog trainer by taking her to obedience classes, although I did become introduced to formal obedience work during that class. The most important thing I learned from Princess was something that a choke collar and a leather leash did not teach me. What Princess taught me was how to have a close relationship with a dog, but that's the subject of a different post, not this one.

Nikki, my first Siberian Husky, whom I started training when I was 20 years old, was the reason I started training dogs "in earnest". Nikki was a bit of a brat. If we got out of the car and he wanted to go down the street in a different direction than the vet's office, then we went that direction, at least until I could finally plant my feet and put on the brakes. Fortunately, Nikki's problems were not something that a good trainer couldn't fix. So we asked around, and ended up in a training class taught by Bill Lee, who was with the Greenville-Spartanburg Obedience Club at that time.

Even though their class was highly recommended, I did not really want to go, as I was a bit leery of dog training classes. First of all, I didn't like the techniques of the day. Secondly, I had been thoroughly intimidated as a sixth grader, by the military type style instructor that Princess and I had endured for eight weeks of class and I had not forgotten the experience.

But Bill Lee surprised me. He took our concerns with Nikki seriously, although probably in his mind he was thinking "what in the world is this novice doing with a Siberian Husky?" He, and his assistants at class, helped me find a collar that would work to give me more control, and they patiently taught me basic handling skills. Most importantly, to me, was the fact that they invited me to club meetings, and welcomed me into the world of dogs. They listened to my questions, and when they didn't know the answer, they sent me to the person who did know the answer. When I became interested in conformation handling, they sent me to fun matches and conformation classes, even though they did not offer them through their club. Now, over 35 years later, I still remember Bill Lee, even though I have forgotten the names of the other club members, since we moved out of state within a year of joining their club. But I met Bill a couple of decades later, though a boarding kennel association, when we started our Bed & Biscuit. I was glad to have the chance to tell him how he had influenced both my interest in showing dogs, and my eventual career path, simply because he was a great dog trainer for a local dog obedience club years ago. Bill and his wife are still in dogs. They are the owners of Top Dog, a very successful boarding, grooming and training facility near Greenville, SC.

So how can you become a professional dog trainer? Well, here are a few simple tips, based not only on my own experience, but on what I have seen in other well respected trainers that I have known through the years.

1. Don't be afraid to ask questions. This is the key to learning, asking questions and finding people who will give you the answers. If you go into the field pretending like you already know everything, then you aren't going to learn anything new, because the old-timers will dismiss you as a know-it-all, instead of taking the time to mentor you and teach you.

2. Read, read and read some more. Back when I got started in the 70s, there was no internet, so I spent a lot of money every year buying books and subscribing to magazines. These days you can do a ton of research on the internet, and even watch video clips. But you have to realize that what you are watching or reading may not be anything of great value, since anyone can post anything on the internet. See number 3!

3. Research and find the experts in your field of interest. Are you interested in showing dogs? Then go to dog shows and watch the people who are experts at it, and find out which professional handlers are giving seminars and go attend them. Stay all day at the show, and watch the top handlers in the group and Best in Show rings. Are you interested in training companion dogs? Ask your veterinarian to tell you the name of the very best trainer of pet dogs that he has ever met. Make an appointment and go visit them and see if they will give you private lessons. Interested in solving behavioral problems? Write to the head of animal behavioral clinics at Cornell and Tufts, and find out who is doing the most research on aggression and other issues. Research and read their articles and attend any workshops or seminars they offer. Join associations and meet people who are successful doing what you wish to do (could be agility, could be gun dog training, companion dog training, showing in conformation, whatever your interest, the way to meet the top people is to become involved).

4. Find good mentors - as per number 3, find the experts, get to know people who have trained under them and find someone willing to help you. It may take some time to find this person, it could even take a couple of years. If you are wanting a career in dogs (versus a hobby), then it probably will NOT be someone in your local area, as they will not wish to be training their competition. For example, when I decided I wanted to learn remote collar training, I learned from Diane Gallagher, who lived four hours away from me, and Martin Deeley, who lived several states away but offered training for trainers. When you find someone who is great at what they are doing, don't be afraid to invest money in learning from them. If you want to make dog training your career, you are going to have to invest in your education. If you just want to do something as a hobby, you may be able to find someone to take you under their wing as a friendship type of mentor, but this is not likely to happen if you want to make dog training your career.

5. As you learn, practice, practice, practice. Not just on your own dogs, but volunteer to foster for rescue groups, or at a local shelter, so you can always have "green" dogs on which to practice. If your heart cannot stand working with shelter dogs, then volunteer to train the dogs of your friends and neighbors. Dog trainers who have only trained their own dog, and then go out and teach classes for a local club are rarely very good. You need to be working with all different types of dogs in order to start understanding what works and what doesn't.

6. Don't become "married to a method". The trainers I have met who are the least successful are those who will use only a handful of techniques and tools; those that are the most successful are those that develop huge toolboxes and a mind open to using whatever works . Every dog is unique, so you must learn many different techniques in order to be able to work with all different types of dogs.

7. Never stop learning. If you live to be 120, you will still never learn everything there is to learn about dogs! If someone tries to convince you that they have all the answers, then run, don't walk, as far away as possible! There actually are "movements" within the dog training world, and I would advise you to stay away from them. Dog training can be a hobby, or a career, but it should not be your religion. If someone wants you to stick to using only one method, and they spend a lot of time in their written material or in seminars and workshops talking about why you should never use other types of training, and try to convince you that their "way is the only way" then you might waste a lot of time in a cult-like environment, versus spending time learning about dogs.

8. Once you have your clients, deliver more than expected. Listen, truly listen, to their concerns. Recommend things that are workable for them, be realistic in your expectations of what each client can handle. They will judge you not on what you can make their dog do, but on what you can teach them that makes the dog work for them. Tailor your advice not only to the dog's temperament, but to that of the owner as well.

9. Follow up. Clients appreciate the email or phone call that lets them know that you are thinking of them. Offering them another tip that might help, or even just asking how their dog is doing can help cement your relationship with them. The way to build your business is to develop satisfied clients, who will in turn recommend you to their friends, relatives and co-workers.

10. Be grateful! Take the time to send thank you notes once you start receiving referrals. And never forget to be grateful to the clients who are paying you. No matter how much patience it requires to work with them, they are still very valuable....without them, you could not be doing what you love!


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